Arizona Dream is one of those obscure films from Depp’s repertoire that I wasn’t familiar with until I started down this path of reviewing all his films. Directed by Serbian film maker Emir Kusturica, who is probably best known for Time of the Gypsies (1988), the film is a surreal meandering tale that is comic and tragic by turns.
Arizona Dream, features Depp as Axel Blackmar a young 20-something working as a fisher counter with New York’s Fish and Game department who claims to listen to the fishes dreams. Axel receives an unexpected visit from his friend Paul (Vincent Gallo), who has been sent by Axel’s Uncle Leo (Jerry Lewis) to bring him home to Arizona to stand up for him at his wedding to his new bride.
Reluctantly Axel accompanies Paul back to Arizona where Leo tries to convince him to help run his Cadillac dealership. While apprenticing at the dealership, Axel encounters Elaine Stalker (Faye Dunaway) and her suicidal step-daughter Grace (Lili Taylor) who’s inheritance has left her independently wealthy. Elaine, a mid-40s widow drunk on life and determined to “sleep with every man under the age of 30”, according to her daughter, becomes involved with Paul and Axel. Grace meanwhile distraught at her mother’s immature behaviour and fascination with Papua New Guinea threatens to kill herself.
A coming-of-age movie narrated by Axel, the film explores the interactions between the various characters and their dreams and fears. While the arc of the story leaves a lot to be desired in my opinion, slow and meandering, there are a lot of good bits in this film and the performances by the actors are solid. Lewis as Leo dials up and down the charm as required and his chemistry with Depp on screen as his nephew seems genuine. Dunaway plays her character with gusto, never backing down from Elaine’s zest for life regardless of others opinions of her. Gallo nearly steals the show as wannabe thespian who recites dialogue from Hollywood classics like Wizard of Oz and Godfather II as well as having an irrational fear for the plane chase scene from Hitchcock’s North By Northwest that he acts out more than once in the movie. As for Depp he ranges the spectrum from innocent idealist to smouldering lover in this movie with stops at geeky and dorkry (see pic above with bow tie – not that there’s anything WRONG with bow ties) and while the whiplash between scenes is sometimes a bit much, it’s still mesmerizing watching this movie waiting for something to happen. Even Depp’s hair gets into the act, seemingly having its own ‘look’ from scene to scene. In New York, its classic hat head, while working his Uncle’s dealership its windswept emo, and during the dinner party scenes he had an annoying rooster tail happening that was distracting me.
Filmed in 1991 this film didn’t see release in North America until 1995 after playing Europe and the film festival circuit in 1992 and 1993. Warner Brothers released it in limited theatres in North America with 20+ minutes cut from the original version which only exists on some of the European DVD releases. While researching this movie, I came across a review that summarized Arizona Dream as a mashup between a Robert Altman and a Gus Van Sant film, which I can totally see.
Arizona Dream is one of those movies that only works if you’re in the right frame of mind to receive it. If you go into it expecting a coherent linear arc with everything neatly tied up in a bow, this isn’t a film that you’re going to enjoy. If you appreciate magic realism, stories that are filled with metaphors about flying and fish, and a plot that meanders like a drunk walking home from the liquor store, then you might have the patience for this film. Personally I found myself somewhere in between these two extremes. Frustrating wanting more coherence and a quicker pace, but fascinated by the characters and their stories.
While I am glad I took the time to watch the film, I don’t think it’ll be on that I will be revisiting any time soon.
Up next in the Johnny Depp Tribute is 1993 film Benny and Joon, co-starring Mary Stuart Matheson and Adian Quinn as those where-are-they-now actors from the 1990s.